Obama’s Lincoln: The Writer and the Imperial Crisis

Presidential reading: Fred Kaplan's Lincoln

Presidential reading: Fred Kaplan’s Lincoln

Fred Kaplan‘s new biography of Abraham Lincoln, the writer, the “Mark Twain of our politics,” leaves no doubt that the log-cabin president who freed the slaves and saved the Union would stand in any event with the literary giants of his time: Whitman, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, the immortals of the American Renaissance. The Lincoln difference remains: that his words and great deeds cannot be disentangled. Lincoln’s glory was to have mastered language that transformed public life, as no other president before or since, though surely Barack Obama is studying and striving after the Lincoln model.

A lot of Lincoln’s masterstrokes are new to me, like this narrative reflection on seeing slaves on a steamboat in Kentucky in 1841. Lincoln was 32, an Illinois stranger in slave country, a storyteller-in-facts in his letter to Mary Speed:

We got on board the Steam Boat Lebanon, in the locks of the Canal about 12 o’clock M. of the day we left, and reached St. Louis the next Monday at 8:00 P.M. Nothing of interest happened during the passage, except the vexatious delays occasioned by the sand bars be thought interesting. By the way, a fine example was presented on board the boat for contemplating the effect of condition upon human happiness. A gentleman had purchased twelve negroes in different parts of Kentucky, and was taking them to a farm in the South. They were chained six and six together. A small iron clevis was around the left wrist of each, and this fastened to the main chain by a shorter one at a convenient distance from the others; so that the negroes were strung together precisely like so many fish upon a trot-line. In this condition, they were being separated forever from the scenes of their childhood, their friends, their fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, and many of them, from their wives and children, and going into perpetual slavery where the lash of the master is proverbially more ruthless and unrelenting than any other where; and yet amid all these distressing circumstances, as we would think them, they were the most cheerful and apparently happy creatures on board. One whose offence for which he had been sold was an over-fondness for his wife, played the fiddle almost continually; and the others danced, sung, cracked jokes, and played various games with cards from day to day. How true it is that “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb,” or in other words, that he renders the worst of human conditions tolerable, while he permits the best, to be nothing better than tolerable.

Abraham Lincoln, in a letter to Mary Speed, August, 1841, quoted in Kaplan’s Lincoln, pp.130-131.

Young Lincoln: Bobby Burns and Byron in America

Young Lincoln: Bobby Burns and Byron in America

Fred Kaplan’s literary life story of Lincoln is conceived as a mystery, not unlike the riddle of Shakespeare: how did the child of illiterates in a farm culture become an obsessive student and master of language in every form, from his tavern tales to the Second Inaugural? The King James Bible and Shakespeare were Lincoln’s private school. The Scotsman Robert Burns who made high art of ordinary language was a formative, kindred spirit in Lincoln’s twenties. Burns’ touch with common songs “stirred Lincoln because it cohered with his own belief in literacy, upward mobility, respect for the common man, and democratic governance, and because it affirmed the connection between language and moral vision,” Fred Kaplan writes. The other suprise to me was Lincoln’s attachment and debt to Lord Byron, the “Romantic republican” poet of resistance, even revolution, against tyranny and Caesarism in Europe. Byron was a spark of Lincoln’s dread of demagogues, mobs and militarists, and he stood in the background of Lincoln’s anti-imperial passion that opposed the war with Mexico and brooded about autocratic values in his own society.

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

Lincoln’s letter to Joshua Speed, August 1855, quoted in Fred Kaplan’s Lincoln, p. 263.

It’s the republican and anti-imperial theme, the Byronic Lincoln, that comes through loud and clear in this conversation — that makes Lincoln a resource for this time, and that puts Fred Kaplan’s book so comfortably in Barack Obama’s hand.

Fred Kaplan: "words mattered immensely"

Fred Kaplan: “words mattered immensely”

In 1848 as a one-term Congressman, Lincoln made a speech to the House of Representatives in which he brilliantly opposed the Mexican-American war. He believed it was an unjust war in which the United States, without sufficient provocation and with manufactured reasons, invaded another country and another culture for our own ideological and material reasons. He brilliantly went through the historical pattern and the events and made use of all his devices — anecdotes, funny stories, logical precision, humor, elevated passages of poetry and rhetoric — to oppose a war that was already underway and was extremely popular in the United States. It contributed to his being a one-term congressman and to what seemed to be the end of his political career. What Lincoln was very much against was the transformation of the American Republic, created by the Founding Fathers and given to us as a precious legacy, into an empire. “Westward Ho!” — the use of force to obtain influence and dominance over others and the acquisition of new territory. That of course cannot help but suggest to us now the problems we have been facing for some time in regard to American expansionism, the creation of empire…right down to the invasion of Iraq under what turn out to be false pretenses. One could read Lincoln’s speech in 1848 to Congress in and almost point-for-point in the last six years say that he must have been thinking how the United States in the Bush administration would invade Iraq with excuses similar to those that were made for the invasion of Mexico.

Fred Kaplan, with Chris Lydon, Boothbay, ME. February 9, 2009

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